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5 Shocks Braille Gave a Visually Impaired Audio Book Reader
At age three, before I learned to read, I heard my parents talk about the family that lived next door to us in our cookie-cutter suburban development in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. I thought they were our neighbors from the “next store”. While learning the alphabet and the meaning of words, I asked my mother what the neighbor sold in his shop. I knew that of course I had heard wrong.
It wasn’t the last time my ears let me down in the spelling department. Reading, however, is supposed to give us a clue about those words that aren’t spelled the way our ears think they should be.
A visually impaired student struggling without braille
As a child in the 1950s with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease, I was expected to rely on my failing eyesight, even though I was born legally blind. I bluffed my way through school, reading so slowly that I got severe headaches and had time for little else. Needless to say, I eventually became a bit picky about what I read. Literature and science were in; math and history were out. Braille was never spoken.
In college, my vision deteriorated beyond the point of faking it. The answer was recorded books, which I still love. However, my lack of fluency in Braille led to a lifetime of functional illiteracy.
I tried to recover the deficit. A friend taught me Braille after I graduated from college and I started using it to be able to live independently. Spices, records and cassettes, my own writings, recipes, contact information and to-do lists began to appear in this beautiful embossed six-point code.
Despite this and borrowing Braille knitting books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), reading remained a largely auditory experience. In the nearly four decades it has taken me to progress through reading age-appropriate material in Braille, my ability to write, and thus to write, has suffered.
Braille: The fight for literacy continues
Before I let you see my mistakes, I want you to know that it wasn’t meant to be. Braille, when taught correctly, can be learned easily and joyfully. The only reason I’m sharing this now is because, contrary to public assumptions, things are worse now than they were in the 1950s. Back then, over fifty percent of blind children in America were taught Braille. Today it is ten percent.
Most blind people are audio book readers, not braille readers, and most blind Americans of working age (seventy percent) are unemployed. Of the few who work, however, more than 80% read Braille. These blind people, who are truly literate in the same definition used for print readers, are machinists, lawyers, chemists, mechanics, engineers, chefs and are successful in many other fields.
Why the discrepancy? There is a shortage of qualified braille teachers and, more importantly, an excess of misunderstandings about both braille and blindness. For more information, visit the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC): http://www.nfb.org/nfb/Parents_and_Teachers.asp
Braille reveals spelling mistakes
Now for those bugs. In addition to my NLS books, I read regularly Columnists Unions Weekly of the Braille National Press. http://www.nbp.org/ As I learn what the country’s leading writers have to say about the issues facing the country, I usually stop, surprised by a word that is spelled so differently than I expected, which often surprises me. days Once I “see” it in braille, I don’t forget it.
- I usually confuse “n” and “m”. The “n” in “interpretation” for example was a complete shock! I thought it was a “fix”, well maybe that’s the dream version. Then again, I thought “Mesopotamia” had an “n”. Why didn’t I make the hippo connection? Mesopotamia is the land between the rivers; The hippopotamus is a river horse.
- Sometimes even the number of words in a common expression gets me wrong. Now I know, for example, that it is “fait accompli” not “fate fulfilled”.
- My concept of “camaraderie” — “camaraderie,” which appears in at least four of the top 7 dictionaries according to Roots Web — was based on the word “comrade” — probably a hazard of growing up during the Cold War. But still, what about the “ie” at the end? Makes it sound like a nickname. Hmmm, that’s kind, though.
- I thought I had a “pension” for music; now, I discover not only that it is “pension” but that the word I had been misusing is “pension”.
- Despite a year of ballet, I was never much of a dancer and was unfamiliar with “choreography”. The “h” was a surprise, but with “choral” and “heart,” I guess I should have seen that one coming.
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